American barbecue takes on an international accent
It may be the quintessential American culinary style, but barbecue provides the perfect template to experiment with flavors from around the world. Recognizing an opportunity to differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive field, barbecue chefs across the country are doing just that as they add menu items inspired by their own background and heritage.
As with most styles of cooking, it’s all in the spices. In its bustling New York location, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que gives a nod to Jamaica with its jerk lamb shoulder sliders and jumbo chicken wings with jerk glaze, the signature allspice adding a savory kick.
At nearby Pig Beach, co-owner Matt Abdoo channeled his family background to develop a recipe for Lebanese-seasoned ribs, creating a surprise hit. “Matt’s Lebanese and Italian, so he came up with a Lebanese spice rub and a New York City shawarma cart-style white sauce,” says partner Shane McBride. “We always sell out when we make them.”
And at newly opened Baobab BBQ in Chicago, owner Andrew Dunlop takes inspiration from the flavors of his native South Africa.
“This is a barbecue joint with a South African accent,” he explains. “We incorporate African flavors into our rubs and into a few of our dishes, which are South African comfort foods, but we adhere to most of the rules of smoking in the United States.”
That means guests will find familiar barbecue staples, but with a slightly different spice blend.
“We use a lot of piri piri, which is a Portuguese/Mozambican chili pepper, and we use a lot of coriander seed, but it’s very subtle,” Dunlop explains. “It would take a knowledgeable palate to know the difference because our heat is the same as you’d find in a rub in Kansas.”
Those who wish to taste that subtle difference can order the ribs.
“We have a special rub that we created for our baby back ribs that has oregano, piri piri, dark chili powder and brown sugar,” he says. “We’ll smoke them for four hours, glaze them with a house barbecue sauce that has a little cumin in it and finish them off under a broiler.”
The same South African rub is used on Baobab’s pulled pork, which is served as both a sandwich and a platter.
“We use bone-in shoulder butt and smoke them for 14 hours,” he says. “They come out falling off the bone.”
South Africa has its own barbecue tradition called the braai, where Dunlop finds the inspiration for his classic boerewors sausage.
“We do a traditional South African farmer’s sausage, which we serve as a sandwich,” he says. “It’s one of the key components of a braai: boerewors, chicken and lamb chops.”
But while its meats are American with a slight accent, Baobab’s desserts are entirely South African.
“Our most popular dessert is called malva pudding, and it’s like a sponge cake that has been soaked in a vanilla and butter syrup, and we serve vanilla ice cream on top of it,” Dunlop says. “Then we do a traditional South African vanilla pastry cream tart, and a traditional South African braided donut served cold that we dip in a lemon syrup.”